Laird Of The Mist
They call him The Devil, but his kiss is heaven.
Protecting Her Was His Passion
High-born though she is, Kate Campbell isn't afraid to draw her sword. When raiders strike, she rushes into the fray.and is lucky when a mysterious Highlander shields her from a deadly blow. Swept onto his stallion, she soon discovers that her rescuer is her clan's most hated enemy: Callum MacGregor, the man they call The Devil. Yet she can not ignore his achingly tender touch or the way his fiery gaze leaves her breathless.
Possessing Her Would Be His Pleasure
Callum MacGregor has taken many Campbell lives, but he's never saved one-until now. Mesmerized by this spirited lass, he wants her by his side-even if it means holding her ransom. As his fingers graze her sumptuous curves and tangle in her unruly tresses, Callum realizes Kate Campbell is his most dangerous foe of all. For he can't make love to her without betraying his kinsmen and his honor.and surrendering his heart forever.
TOP PICK 4 1/2 Stars from Romantic Times Magazine~Kathe Robin
"Quinn captures the aura of the Highlands brilliantly, delivering a tale rife with Scottish lore and infamous feuds. She combines passion, history, danger and intrigue to perfection."~ Kathe Robin
Top Pick Award from Romance Readers At Heart~Kristal Gorman
"Wow! From page one of LAIRD OF THE MIST, I was completely amazed at the talent of Paula Quinn!"
5 Blue Ribbon Rating from Romance Junkies~Dottie
"This is a witty, steamy, passionate medieval story. The hero's vulnerability beneath his raw courage and strength, as well as the feisty heroine, makes this a story you will not want to miss! I hated to see it end. I highly recommend LAIRD OF THE MIST and look forward to reading more of this talented author's works."
5 STARS from Armchair Interviews~Ana Beck
"This is a great novel and an interesting story for anyone who has ever dreamed about living in simpler times. Picturing the highlands and the people that lived there is a lot easier with someone like Paula Quinn directing your vision."
Joyfully Recommended from Joyfully Reviewed~Tanya
"Laird of the Mist is one of the best Scottish Highland romances I have read, and I read a lot. The author did a fantastic job in showing how prejudices are taught and if they are taught young enough, it is hard to overcome them, but possible. Her heroine is strong, smart, understanding and not afraid to take a stand. Additionally Ms. Quinn was able to take an actual historical event and build a number of believable characters around the situation."
"We've been starved for a great Scottish romance - they seem to be out of fashion these days. Saved by Paula Quinn - Laird of the Mist reminds us of Julie Garwood's saucy sense of humour and style."~Rendezvous Bookstore
Glen Orchy, Scotland
Kate Campbell looked her enemy square in his lifeless face and then swung. Her blade severed an arm, but the torso remained intact. Mindless of her uncle's men honing their battle skills around her, she lifted the ax she gripped in her other hand and grunted as it sank deep into her opponent's straw chest.
Swiping her hair away from her eyes, she spied her uncle Duncan crossing the small bailey of her holding. He had arrived in Glen Orchy a few days ago to bring her to Kildun Castle, in Inverary. He'd promised to bring her and her brother to his home when they were children, but at the end of each visit he left without them.
Their mother died giving Kate life. Their father was killed at Kildun twelve years after that, just before Duncan was named Earl of Argyll, and Kate and Robert's guardian.
Kate watched him stalk toward her, his equine legs encased in fine woolen breeches and boots of polished obsidian. His frame was slight, his shoulders narrow beneath an olive doublet. He was built more for priesting than for fighting, though he often bragged of his victories in battle. These battles kept him away from Kildun for months at a time, he'd reminded them many times during his visits, planting a kiss on their foreheads before heading for the doors. Soon he would come to bring them home with him. But he never did. Not even when her father's vassals began leaving, save for a small handful who raised them.
Kate met the earl's gaze briefly, and his gray eyes grew dark with intent that made her skin crawl. He may not have wanted her as a child, but he wanted her now.
"You brandish your weapons well, Katherine." He came up behind her and ducked to his right when she hefted her ax over her shoulder for another crushing swipe, this time to her enemy's thigh.
Aye, she and Robert had been made to practice day after day. "Amish and John taught us well."
Behind her, she heard a tight snort. "They have remained loyal soldiers to my brother these many years. But their duty to him is over now. I will see that they are rewarded." He leaned over her so that his whispered breath clung to her cheek. "It pleases me to know you would fight back should any man try to ravish you."
Kate clutched the handle of her ax and thought about flinging it over her shoulder. "Truly, Uncle, your concern for mine and Robert's well-being has always warmed my heart. Especially when you used to remind us how fortunate we were that it was the McColls who raided Glen Orchy every other fortnight, and not the murderous MacGregors." He hadn't cared that a Highlander might ravish her while she was growing up, or that there were but a handful of men left in the garrison to fight them if they did.
"When you were a child, the only thing the raiders wanted was sheep. I knew you were safe here. But now you are a woman and the Highlanders will take more than your livestock." His breath glided over her throat. Kate cringed and brought her ax down hard on her opponent, raining hay on their heads.
"I do not fear any man who thinks to come here to steal my virtue, Uncle."
"And if our enemy should fall upon you?"
Kate knew who he meant. He'd spoken of them countless times over the years. "There are hardly any MacGregors left in Scotland worth fretting over. I'm certain I shall never meet one."
"There are enough of them left to continue to back the royalists' cause." The earl curled his finger around a raven lock that fell over her shoulder. "We must not forget how they joined forces with their Catholic Marquis of Montrose against us. Or how many of our kinsmen have died during their murderous rampages. Remember I told you how they massacred the Covenanters without mercy at Kilsyth? I will not let you fall to them, as well. You will do as I say and come home with me." He gave her hair a tug, as if to remind her that he would not let her refuse.
"This is my home," she said, stabbing her opponent in the throat.
"Not anymore." When she stiffened at his sharp retort, he softened his tone. "Robert is eager to see you. It has been near three months since he has set eyes on his beloved sister."
Kate missed her brother terribly, but he had chosen his path. "My brother has waited years to give his service to the realm, but I am content here, Uncle."
His laughter raked across her ear. "With a few old men and a handful of servants? What could you hope to do against the Devil, should he find you?"
Kate was certain he already had and was standing behind her at this very moment. Her uncle was trying his best to frighten her into leaving with him, by reminding her of the horrid MacGregors the way children taunt each other with tales of beasties. The most terrifying of them all: The Devil, who had killed over fifty Campbells six years ago in a massacre that had made him legend, and made her and Robert orphans.
Duncan hauled her closer and gritted his teeth. "Have you forgotten already that he killed my father and yours?"
"Nae," Kate answered without turning. "I have not forgotten." Indeed, Kate hated him, but she did not concern herself with legends or the foolishness of fearing them.
"And you do not fear such a blood-lustful man?" he demanded while she swung again.
"Nae, I will kill him if ever I meet him," she vowed, decapitating her enemy with her sword.
"You never will." The earl slid his hand down her arm until his fingers covered hers. He jabbed her blade into her lifeless opponent, a groan tangling in his throat as he pressed her back to his chest. "Tomorrow you will return with me to Kildun. Only there will you be safe from our enemy."
Kate stopped fighting and ground her teeth when he kissed the back of her head. "You are my enemy, as well," she murmured as he swaggered back to his men. She brought her ax upward instead of down; it struck and wedged tightly between her opponent's legs.
Leaving the ax where it landed, Kate sheathed her sword and walked off toward the meadow where her sheep grazed oblivious and innocent to the lusty wiles of men. It sickened her when she thought of why her uncle wanted her. She'd known of his depravity for some time but had never told Robert. She hadn't truly thought Duncan would come for her, even after Robert went to live with him, so there was no need. But now he was here and so anxious to get her out of Glen Orchy, she was certain he would drag her there tied to his horse if he had to. Did he think Robert would let him touch her once they arrived at Kildun? Fool. Her brother would slice off Duncan's hands, uncle or not. Robert was noble and valiant, with a strong sense of duty to protect his clan. It was he who taught her Malory and Monmouth's tales of Arthur Pendragon and his knights of the Round Table. And it was the terrible tales of the savage MacGregors that drove him to leave their home three months ago and join the other knights of Inverary.
Robert had begged her to go with him, but Kate did not want to leave her home, and she certainly did not want to live with her uncle. She was safe here. The raiders were bothersome but not terribly dangerous.
Amish had made her and her brother vow to never lift a weapon to the mountain men. Their raiding, he had told them, was a way of life. They did not come to kill, so long as they were not attacked. Not so the MacGregors. For over two centuries they were considered the scourge of Scotland: uncivilized barbarians with no regard for honor or a man's family. So heinous were their crimes against the Campbells and their allies that their name had been proscribed over fifty years ago.
Amish and John never spoke ill of them, though, even after the Devil killed her father. Hatred, they told her as her father had, was poison to the soul.
Kate wiped her fist across her ear, where the stale smell of her uncle's breath still lingered. Hatred might be poison, but if he ever touched her again he would feel the power of it when her blade sliced open his heart.
A thunderous cry from the braes above pierced her thoughts. Her face paled. Raiders! She turned, looking back at her uncle's men already drawing their swords. Nae! She sped toward them, praying as she ran that she could reach her uncle's men before the Highlanders did.
Callum MacGregor, clan chieftain of the MacGregors, reined in his mount atop the crest of a hill and watched the small battle taking place in the vale below. His dark brows creased over his eyes as he scanned the men engaged in the melee around the Campbell holding and those lying dead in the grass. Duncan Campbell was not among them.
"Looks like we've stumbled upon a raid by the McColls," said one of the four men flanking him.
"Ye said the Earl of Argyll would be here, Graham." The chieftain cut his gaze to his first in command.
"He's here," his commander assured confidently while he rotated the cap tilted jauntily atop his mane of honeyed curls to a backward position. If any man had reason to be so certain of his words, 'twas Graham Grant. After pretending to be a Campbell from Breadalbane and living in Kildun Castle for the last pair of months, Graham knew all there was to know about the Inverary Campbells and the tenth Earl of Argyll. "This was his brother Colin's homestead. He's come here to retrieve his niece." Graham pointed into the vale at the soldiers. "Campbell's men are here. Mayhap he hides in the keep. We know he lacks courage."
"Save fer when he's brandin' MacGregor women," said another man, a bit broader of shoulder than the rest. He popped the cork off a leather pouch dangling from his belt and raised it to his mouth.
"Can ye no' go anywhere wi'oot yer poison, Angus?"
Angus took a swig, belched, and then swiped his beefy knuckles across his thick auburn beard. "Brodie, ye know I like killin' Campbells wi' a bit o' auld Gillis's brew in me." He grinned at his cousin stationed beside him. "It fires up me innards."
Callum refused when Angus slapped the pouch of brew against his arm, offering his laird to take part. Callum did not need whiskey to fire his innards. Hating the Campbells was enough. They had taken much from his clan. But they had taken everything from him.
"The McColls are puttin' a quick end to the Campbells. They'll be less fer us."
"Dinna fret over it, Brodie," Angus said, corking his pouch. "We killed us enough o' the bastards already at Kildun before we got here."
"It will never be enough," their laird growled low in his throat.
"If Argyll is there, the McColls might get to him before we do," Jamie Grant, Graham's younger brother and the youngest of Callum's men, pointed out.
"There's a lass fightin' among the men!"
"That's no' a lass, Brodie." Angus guzzled another swig of whiskey. 'Tis a Campbell wi' mighty long hair."
Brodie flashed his larger cousin an incredulous scowl beneath his dark whiskers. "'Tis a lass, ye dull-witted bastard."
Callum heard the side of Angus's sword smack against Brodie's head, and Brodie's subsequent oaths before he pounded his fist into Angus's chest. The chieftain ignored his kinsmen and observed the object of their disagreement. The mounted warrior certainly looked like a lass. He'd never seen a lass fight before, though many times he wished he had. His mother's screams still haunted his dreams. He'd been a lad when Duncan Campbell's father raided his village and his men raped and branded the women, though no hand had been lifted against the earl's men.
But here was a woman who had the spirit to actually fight to save her life.
"'Tis a lass," he said, more to himself than to his men. "Mayhap Argyll's niece."
"Aye." Graham nodded, watching her lush raven mane swing around her shoulders while she whirled her horse around and deflected another mighty blow. "She tires against the McColls. I know she's a Campbell," he said with only a hint of regret, "but it looks like a good enough fight. Shall we aid her, Callum?"
Graham smiled at his friend's slight nod, and then he flicked his reins and took off a moment after Callum kicked his stallion's flanks and raced toward the melee.
The MacGregor chief cut a straight path to the lass, swiping his claymore through anyone in his way. His men fanned out around him, killing the rest. The closer he came to her, the harder he rode, his dark hair snapping behind him like a pennant. Her arms were growing weary. She was having difficulty lifting her blade to parry the flurry of strikes hammering down on her. He told himself, while he hacked at a McColl riding up behind her, that he was rushing to her defense to keep her alive so that she could tell him Duncan Campbell's whereabouts.
She whirled on him just as he reached her, and Callum felt something in his gut jolt. Her skin was pale alabaster against a spray of soft obsidian waves, dampened by exhaustion. Her eyes were beautiful as black satin, and when she looked up at him, they told Callum she had just lost hope in surviving this day.
He did not expect her to swing at him, looking as defeated as she did. For an instant, he merely gaped in stunned disbelief at the blood soaking his thigh. Then he lifted his claymore over his head and brought it down hard on another McColl. The lass turned away from the force of his deathblow, but a moment later she returned her gaze to his. Callum responded to the great relief in her expression by wheeling his mount around and calling out to his men to guard her on every side. There, they shielded her until the only men left in the yard, besides them, were dead or wounded.
When Callum turned his mount around to face her again, her sword slipped from her fingers. He glanced at it, then lifted his eyes to hers. "Are ye injured?"
She blinked as if emerging from a daze. Her breath still came heavy enough to part her lips.
"Are ye hurt?" he demanded again.
She shook her head nae. "Are you?" Her gaze slipped to his thigh. "My deepest apologies for wounding you. I did not know who you were, or-"
"Are ye Duncan Campbell's niece?" he interrupted.
She either didn't hear him or chose to ignore his query. "I must find Amish and John. They are old and-"
"Woman," he cut her off again, this time his voice hard enough to make her blink. "Are ye Argyll's niece?" When she nodded, his expression went hard. "Where is he?"
She looked around at the fallen, presenting him with the delicacy of her profile. "I had hoped he was here. But he must have run off with one of my sheep."
A hint of amusement crossed Callum's expression before he angled his head and barked out another order to the four men around her. "Brodie, check the keep with Angus and Jamie. If ye find Argyll, bring him oot to me."
"Who are you, that I may properly thank you for aiding me?"
Callum's gaze swung back to her. For an unsettling instant he lost all ability to reason, save that he knew he would be content to look at her for however many days he had left on the Earth. 'Twas not fear that made her bonny eyes appear so big, but reverence. Admiration from a Campbell! Since he had never saved the life of one before, he was not prepared for her awe. He shifted again, feeling damned uncomfortable and blaming her for it.
"I am Callum MacGregor." Best to get it over with sooner rather than later, though a part of him regretted having to watch that veneration turn to hatred when he spoke his name aloud. He was not disappointed. Her face paled to such a milky white he thought she might faint dead away and tumble from her horse.
His eyes were usually very quick, and on any other day Callum MacGregor would never have missed an enemy reaching for a weapon. But for a moment her beauty made him forget about fighting and hatred and blood. A moment was all it took for her to slip her hand beneath her belt and retrieve the small dagger she had hidden there.
The glimmer of surprise that sparked Callum's eyes belied his cold, impassive voice. "Ye have courage to point yer dagger at me." She swung, and he moved in a blur of speed, yanking her from her horse to his. Pressing her chest to his, he closed his arms around her, pinning her dagger securely behind her back. "Ye insult the laird of the clan MacGregor with such a meager weapon, lass."
"Let me go, vermin!" she hurled at him and spent the remainder of her energy kicking and wriggling, trying to free herself. "Let me go if you be a man, and let me fight you with my sword."
Callum glanced at Graham, mirroring the commander's expression of admiration at her furious promise. She was a fiery, braw lass, something all Highlanders valued.
But she was a Campbell.
"Is Argyll in the keep?" Callum asked her, barely straining a muscle against her attempts to be free of him.
"I told you I don't know where he is, but when you find him, take him to hell with you!"
Aye, now this was more like the reaction he expected from a Campbell. She was no more innocent than the rest. "Graham, get me some rope. The wench tires me."
Her fight came to an abrupt halt. She glared up at him with the promise of retribution frosting her eyes. "Will you prove yourself naught but a savage by raping me?"
Briefly, his gaze fell to her lips, then drifted over the rest of her body in a leisurely inspection of her feminine aspects, as if he were considering it. "Woman, I am much more than a savage."
Her nostrils flared. "I would cut off your-"
Over her shoulder, Callum saw one of her uncle's men exit from behind the house, cocked bow in hand. He had no time to shield her as the arrow whistled toward them and penetrated her right shoulder, just above her breast. Though it happened within the space of a breath, he watched it pierce her perfect form, watched the breathtaking spark of life grow dull in her eyes. As Graham raced toward the guardsman, Callum's eyes met hers again when she realized she'd been hit.
"Och, hell." Her breath was a ragged whisper, sweet against his chin. "That was likely meant for you."
Fire lanced up Kate's arm and seared her chest. Every inhalation of breath became more excruciating than the one before it. It wasn't helping that her captor still held her firmly pressed against his body.
On second thought, mayhap it was. For she couldn't move or flail about as agony gripped her. Her thoughts began to fade, but she fought to cling to consciousness. She had never fainted before, and she was not about to do so now whilst in the arms of a MacGregor!
"Be still with ye, lass."
"Dear God, it pains me," she groaned, covering her face in his shoulder.
"Let the pain settle." His pitch lowered to a comforting murmur. His arms loosened around her while she tried to slow her breathing. He turned to his men, who were exiting her home.
"Argyll isna inside," one of them called out. "We found only a few servants, nae old men among them."
"They must be there." Kate fought the MacGregor's hold on her and then swooned as red-hot agony tore through her arm.
"Yer brew," the chieftain commanded to another one of his men, and then caught something in his hand. "Drink this." He held the nozzle of a small hide skin sack to her lips. "It'll dull the pain."
She glared at him with tears misting her eyes. "Did you kill Amish and John?"
He stared at her, unaffected by her sorrow. "I dinna kill old men. They are no' here. Now drink the brew." The intensity of his piercing gaze compelled her to obey.
She covered his hand with hers and took a long guzzle. Then she began to choke. Mother Mary! She had never tasted anything so foul! It was like drinking liquid fire. Her skin tinged green, and she shivered so violently her teeth rattled. She brought her hand to her mouth to stop herself from crying out.or from throwing up.
"It'll pass." Her captor moved slightly away and commanded her to look at him. When she did, his eyes fastened onto hers, and something in their ardent depths told her he did not expect to see weakness in her. She inhaled deeply. He would not find it.
"It's poison," she finally coughed.
"'Tis only whiskey." A smile lurked at the edges of his mouth, but that was the only evidence of softness in his striking features. An instant later, even that was gone. "Where is yer uncle?"
"For the last time, I don't know." Kate closed her eyes to stop herself from weeping all over her enemy. Amish and John had been like foster fathers to her and Robert. Dear God, where were they? Where was her uncle? "He was here earlier. We were to leave for Inverary tomorrow. He must have fled when he saw the McColls."
"True to his cowardly Campbell nature."
Kate looked up at him. Cowardly was killing old men, or slicing open her father's spine as one of this vermin's kin had done. "Take your filthy hands off me, MacGregor."
For a terrifying moment, Kate thought she might be looking at the Devil MacGregor himself. For his eyes were the color of fire: blue-gold embers that singed her flesh as they regarded her beneath the sable fringe of his lashes. Then his mouth crooked into a ruthless smirk as he opened his arms and released her.
Kate grasped his forearm to keep herself from slipping from his lap and crashing to the ground. She gritted her teeth as a fresh assault of withering pain ripped through her. "Damnation," she swore, narrowing her eyes on him through a haze of tears. "You bastard."
Her insult earned her a look of cool indifference. "Though ye look like ye could use some coddlin', I dinna have the heart fer it."
"I expected no less from a MacGregor," she countered, then stiffened and grimaced when his arm snapped around her again.
The pain was beginning to dull, along with her senses. Dear God, she'd never been wounded so. Damn the McColls. Raiding her cattle was one thing. Trying to kill her was another. They had never done the like before. But today, because her uncle's guardsmen had joined in the melee, the McColls had fought to kill. When two of the Highlanders swung at her, she'd had no choice but to unsheathe her blade and fight back. After over a quarter of an hour, her strength had been drained and she knew she could not hold them off much longer. She'd thought she was going to die. Though she had spent many years learning to wield a sword, no straw opponent could have prepared her for true fighting. She had been frightened many times in her life-three years ago, when the crop had failed and she'd thought her small family was going to starve. When her nursemaid Helen grew ill with the fever and did not recover. And after that, when Robert left and the wind howled and battered against her door at night, like a demon trying to enter. But she had never been as frightened as today, too weary to save her life, waiting for the strike of someone's cold blade to cut through her flesh. Then he came.
She was not afraid of the MacGregor laird, though when she had first laid eyes on him sitting atop his great warhorse, the hilt of a bloody claymore clutched in his hand and a dozen dead McColls around him, she had been certain her death was imminent. But instead of killing her, he saved her life. Even after she had wounded him, he fought to protect her. Why would a MacGregor do the like?
Her head suddenly felt too heavy to hold up. Just before her eyes closed, she gazed up at the warrior cradling her in his arms. He smelled of heather and mist. The scent covered her, going straight to her head. The sun hovered just behind him, splashing light over his shoulders like a golden mantle, reminding her of Robert's tales of Camelot. She smiled and then went limp in his arms.
Callum watched her head loll back, spilling her hair over his arm. His gaze fell across her throat, over the beguiling mound of her bosom pushed slightly upward by the brown bodice cinching her waist. God's fury, he must be going daft, but he found her completely mesmerizing. She fit so perfectly in his arms. Indeed, he had the feeling that they had been crafted this way and he hadn't known she was missing until this very day. Nae, he reminded himself, she was a Campbell, someone he was born to hate.
He had come here to kill the Earl of Argyll, not to save the bastard's niece. He looked away from her, and his eyes burned with frustration. "Gather the men and let us be away from here."
"And the lass?" Graham asked before turning to the others.
"Well, I dinna want her if she canna hold her whiskey." Coming up behind them, Angus laughed when his laird tossed him back his pouch.
She had held it better than most, Callum decided, unable to help himself from looking at her again. Others usually retched after just one sip of Gillis's potent brew. The way this woman had fought the whiskey's worst effect revealed the kind of strength he valued and had never expected to find in a Campbell.
"I'm takin' her," Callum said, raising his gaze back to his men. "If Argyll wants to see his niece alive again, he will have to find me and finally face me in battle."
"And if he finds our holding in Skye?" Graham asked.
"Let him." Callum's snarl was razor sharp. "He fears me and will nae doubt garner another army to bring with him. We will see them coming from ten leagues away and strike them doun as we did in Kildun. Argyll will die slowly, though."
"What if the lass dies before we reach Skye?" Jamie asked, dropping a small pink bud he'd been inspecting in exchange for the girl. Her skin was deathly pale and her breathing shallow.
"Ye dinna die from an arrow in yer shoulder," Brodie scoffed.
Angus swiped him in the chest with his fist. "How's he supposed to know that? We've never seen an arrow in a lass before."
"Women are more delicate than men," Graham agreed, tossing a lingering glance on the lass in Callum's arms. "She's a bonny one too."
"What in damnation does that have to do wi' anything?" Angus asked after another deep pull of his brew.
Callum glanced down at her again. "She will live. He shifted his arm to cradle her at a more comfortable angle when his thigh began to ache, and then scowled when she groaned-it sounded to his ears like a purring kitten after a healthy supper. She cuddled deeper against his chest, and his arms came up closer around her, mindful of the arrow jutting out of her shoulder. Here was something that certainly would have torn away his fierce reputation had anyone but his most loyal men witnessed it. A Campbell clutched in the crook of his arm!
"Should we no' take the arrow oot, Laird?" Jamie asked, keeping a close pace beside Callum as they rode out of the vale.
Callum had considered it, but the thought of causing her any more pain did not appeal to him. Still, he did not want his men thinking he was going soft, and over a Campbell, no less. "We'll take her to the Stewarts. They're no' far from here. Ennis's wife is a healer. Once the arrow is oot, the lass'll need herbs to fight infection. I'll need her alive if I'm to use her as leverage against her uncle."
"Ennis Stewart is a traitor," Graham reminded him. "He might not welcome MacGregors into his home."
"He will if he wants to live," Callum growled back at him.
Graham studied his best friend with a spark of amusement gleaming in his green eyes. "Here, let me take her. Ye seem more sour than usual since ye put her in yer arms."
"I've got her," Callum warned succinctly. "Stop gapin' at her."
"Aye, stop gapin' at her," Jamie intoned with a forced scowl aimed at his brother. "Callum fancies her and willna have his woman fallin' fer ye like them at Camlochlin."
"I dinna fancy her, Jamie," Callum corrected with an extra dose of disgust thrown in for the convincing. "She's a Campbell."
While Jamie often proved himself worthy to be ranked among the MacGregors' most fearsome men, his downy flaxen hair and large blue eyes rivaled those of the most innocent child. "So ye hate her, then?" Those huge eyes looked up to Callum.
Aye, Callum thought, he despised the blood that flowed in her veins. Her clan was responsible for killing almost every MacGregor laird for the past four generations without pause. They'd tortured the only person in his life he ever dared to love, until naught remained in him but anger, and darkness, and revenge. Aye, he hated her. But he could not find the stomach to utter it. He clenched his jaw tight instead and kicked his mount into a full gallop.
"Aye." Jamie nodded, and then took off after him. "He hates her aright."
Ennis Stewart did not immediately welcome the MacGregors into his home. When he did, it was not with open arms, but with muttered oaths that should any punishment come upon his family for communicating with the outlawed clan, he would never forgive them.
"Ye're a MacGregor lest ye forget, Ennis," Graham reminded the old warrior. "Yer name may have been changed, but yer blood is, and always will be, MacGregor blood."
Standing aside to allow them entry into his small bothy, Ennis mumbled a few more blasphemies, then poked his head outside after everyone entered. He looked left and right, then slammed the door shut and bolted it.
"M' faither was a MacGregor," Ennis acknowledged, turning to Graham. "M' brother and his family were killed because of it. Lest ye forget, the name MacGregor is proscribed. I can be hanged fer aidin' ye." He went to his wife, who stood by a small table in the center of the room, wringing her hands together. Ennis put his arm around her and pulled her close as if the door were about to burst open and they be found guilty of harboring the rebels. "Yer defiance will get ye all killed." He turned to Callum and shook his head with the pity of it. "How long will ye continue yer war? Ye're strong and young. Life is no' so bad now. It willna be long before the monarchy is restored under Charles II. MacGregors have fought fer him. Surely he will remember it. Change yer name, fer the mercy of God, and live a peaceful life."
Angus stepped forward and towered over Ennis with a scowl as cold as a Highland winter night. "Mind yer tongue. 'Tis yer laird ye address."
Squaring his shoulders, Ennis tilted his head up to look the huge warrior straight in the eye. "M' laird is Connor Stewart now."
Angus regarded the old man with a look of disgust. "Ye're a coward, Ennis MacGregor."
"Nae! I protect m' family!"
"So do they!" Graham shouted at him. He stormed forward and slammed his fist on the table, ignoring Mae Stewart's startled leap back. "They protect their clan and their family name. I'm proud to say the Grants stand at their side."
"How are they protected?" Ennis demanded. He pushed his wife behind him and faced the group of warriors boldly. "D'ye protect them by arrogantly announcing yer names to yer enemies? How does that protect yer families?"
Now Callum moved forward. When he reached the table, he swept his arm across it, clearing it of bowls and a vase full of flowers. He bent forward, laying the woman in his arms across the surface. Straightening, he closed his fingers around the hilt of his sword.
"I protect them with this. Anyone who thinks to do harm to my clan will die by my sword, and the offense will never be forgotten. If I have sons, I'll train them to be warriors, as my faither taught me, so that when I die they'll protect the clan in my stead. And my clan is MacGregor." His voice grew low with firm conviction. "I will no' hide my kin in the darkness of fear in order to protect them. If we die, then so be it. We die as MacGregors. Now, I've no' come here to d'ye harm, nor to shame ye fer what ye feel is right, Ennis. This lass is in need of yer wife's healin'. We'll be gone before the sun sets." He turned to Mae. "Will ye help her?"
"Aye." She nodded up at him. "Ye look in need of some of m' special salve yerself." She motioned to his leg, where blood had dripped and dried in thick rivulets down to his knee.
"I'd be most grateful," he said and watched while she began her examination of the woman on the table.
"Who did this to her?" Mae looked up from pulling the edge of the woman's bodice and shift off her shoulder.
"One of her uncle's guardsman," Callum told her, unable to look away from the smooth complexion of the lass's shoulder. She moaned, and he blinked his gaze away.
"Her uncle?" Ennis asked, his interest in her piqued. "Who is she, then?"
When Callum told him, Ennis tossed him a doubtful look. "Ye're aidin' a Campbell?"
"Aye, but he hates her." Jamie hastened to stand at his laird's defense.
"He doesna hate her, whelp." Brodie shoved his elbow into Jamie's gut.
"Ye're all going to have to wait ootside," Ennis's wife declared, exasperated by the sudden bickering. Besides, she was going to have to undress the lass to get to the wound, and it was not proper for any man to see her. "Oot with ye now," she ordered, shooing them away.
"Ye see what ye did, Brodie?" Jamie hissed at him. "She thinks us barbarians because of ye."
"That's no' it." Brodie pushed him along. "She doesna want us to see the lass's breasts."
They were already heading in the direction of the door when Callum gave both men a harsh shove that catapulted them the rest of the way. "Mind yer mouths now and move yer arses."
Once the men left the bothy, Ennis looked over his shoulder every five breaths. Within ten, he had worked himself into a frenzy. Any moment now, someone was going to wander by to bid him a fine day, take one look at the five giant warriors, and go screaming throughout the holding that MacGregors were afoot. Then, Ennis thought, rubbing his forehead, he and his poor Mae would be cast out and left to starve to death on the moors.
Callum's hand on his shoulder startled him. "Dinna fret so, Ennis. Should anyone happen by, I'll put my sword to yer throat and ye can explain to yer laird that we forced ye to aid us."
Ennis knew the MacGregor was not berating him for his fears. The chieftain was indeed willing to lay his head on the block for anyone in his clan, even one who had chosen a different name to stay alive.
"I've thought aboot retreating to yer holding on the isle, laird." Ennis admitted, unable to help but respect the courage it took to stand firm against their subjugation. "But this is m' home now."
Callum nodded and patted his back. "Camlochlin will welcome ye if ye ever change yer mind."
Ennis finally managed a smile, but a moment later he resumed his pacing, scowling now and then at Brodie and the others while they hurled insults at each other.
"How did ye come to possess a Campbell?" Ennis asked the chieftain, to keep his mind off the panic rising in him.
Callum explained what had taken place in Glen Orchy.
"What d'ye intend to do with her?"
"I will hold her until Argyll comes fer her, then release her to her brother in Inverary." Callum ground his jaw, his penetrating gaze fixed on the heather-lined meadows before him. "The sooner I am away from the wench, the better."
"And the earl?"
Callum's eyes cooled to embers as he turned to his reluctant host. "He dies."
Ennis arched a bushy gray brow at him. "Will ye punish him fer what Liam Campbell did to ye, then?
"Aye," Callum nodded. "He will pay fer his faither's crimes, just as I paid fer mine. And he will suffer fer the MacGregors he has killed and the women's faces he has branded."
Ennis grew quiet. He'd heard about the women put to the iron by the Earl of Argyll. Damn pity 'twas, but 'twas naught out of the ordinary. The Campbells had been trying to tame the MacGregors since the time of Robert the Bruce, but to no avail.
Aye, Ennis knew that his clan was not entirely innocent. They were a bloodthirsty lot, killing Campbells for more years than Ennis could ever count. There were dozens of acts of Parliament's Privy Council against them, granting barons and other noblemen the right to pursue the outlaws with fire and sword. But when the MacGregors had massacred the Colquhouns at the battle of Glen Fruin fifty years ago, King James VI decreed them into extinction. Most Highlanders knew the MacGregors did not deserve the punishment they'd received, for treachery amongst the Campbells and their allies abounded. But Callum and Margaret MacGregor had been innocent. That they had escaped Liam Campbell's dungeon at Kildun Castle was a miracle, everyone agreed. How they had done it, and what had become of Callum after that, was another matter entirely, depending on who was asked. Some called the laird of the mist braw, while to others he was a madman. One thing was certain though, The MacGregor was a proud man, choosing, by his own words, never to hide in darkness. But as Ennis looked down at the leather cuffs encircling Callum's wrists, he wondered how long the young chieftain could hide behind those terrible years of his youth.
Ennis's thoughts were interrupted when his wife opened the front door and peeped her head out at the men standing around her doorway. She smiled when she met the MacGregor's gaze. "'Twas a clean injury. I've removed the arrow and dressed and bandaged her wound. She's awake, though a bit groggy from m' herbs. Probably why she asked fer the arrogant bas-" Mae caught herself from repeating what the Campbell lass had called him. She blushed and gave her chest a pat. "-man who raided her holding. I presume she's meanin' ye, laird."
Angus immediately puffed up his chest and stepped forward. "I believe she most likely meant me."
Brodie snorted a laugh. "If she meant ye, she woulda asked fer the fat sot with a sack o' brew hangin' oot o' his mouth."
"Well, she didna mean ye, that's fer damned certain, Brodie MacGregor," Angus shouted. Ennis Stewart looked up and beseeched the heavens to open and take him where he stood.
"I think she meant Graham," Jamie offered honestly. "He's always smilin' at all the lasses with them devilish dimples of his."
"Stay here," Callum ordered his bickering kin and ducked his head under the doorframe, stepping into the bothy. When he saw her lying on the table, a strange tightness settled in his chest, causing his steps to pause. Her hair dripped over the side in long, rich locks he wanted to touch. God's fury, she had not even cried out when Ennis's wife removed the arrow from her flesh. When she turned her head to look at him, her eyes blazed with anger and tears.
Unprepared for the effect the sight of her had on him, he cursed himself for wanting to take her in his arms and comfort her.
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